The Webcomic Overlook #205: Boxer Hockey
When you stop to think about it, sports are totally ridiculous. And I don’t just mean the obviously weird ones like chessboxing, which, incidentally, was inspired by a comic book. And which the RZA is a big fan of, despite his song, “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” not actually being about this particular iteration of the sport. I’m talking about mainstream sports.
Take football, for instance. (Just to be clear, the American brand, not that other game that actually uses feet. Which I think is called “handball.”) It’s one of those things that just make no sense. Why are there so many positions? How come you can’t throw the ball to the beefy guys up front? How come if you kick the ball between the uprights, it’s three points, except after you score a touchdown and it’s one point? What the heck is a “line of scrimmage”? Is there any reason why there’s one guy called a “cornerback” and one guy called a “safety” when they do they same exact thing? Why is there also a play called a “safety”, and why is it worth two points plus possession for the scoring team? Why are the people on defense not the same people on the offense?
It’s like a game where the rules are intentionally obfuscated so that anyone who has a passing interest gets a headache within five minutes. And it’s even more baffling when you realize that the rules of American football were codified by the best and brightest minds of the Ivy League.
It’s crazy. It’s nonsensical. And, if you’re a sports fan like me, it’s just another thing to embrace as part of the mystique behind it all. The sport behind Tyson Hesse’s Boxer Hockey, one of the very few sports webcomics in existence, is even more weird and inscrutable as, say, grown men in their undershirts tossing a big rubber ball inside a peach basket … but, hey, give it twenty years and perhaps we’ll look back at it as some sort of beloved past time.
So what in the world is “boxer hockey”? The very first page lays down the rules, which read like the introductory paragraph of an official professional sport’s rulebook:
A professional boxer hockey team is comprised of three players, or boxey hockers. Three runners and one goalie. Runners are allowed to bring one “stick” on to the field, each. A player’s “stick” can be any kind of object. A baseball bat, hockey stick, pipe, broom, large rock: anything the player wishes. Goalies are only allowed gloves or mitts of any kind. The runners try to get the “ball” into the opposing team’s goal, scoring a point. The game is played in four quarters of 23 minutes each. There is a 10 minute break in between quarters for the players to recover. And that’s the game. Oh, and most importantly, the”ball” is a genetically engineered frog. Every quarter a new frong is launched into the field, amounting to the maximum of 4 active frogs by the end of the game. Splicing the frog’s DNA with rubber offers a longer-lasting frog, with less gory pauses to replace broken units. In fact, a regulation WBHL frog lives an average, healthy 6 years.
So, Quidditch with frogs.
It’s a game less formal than most Olympic-approved sports, in the sense that there are no uniforms. Our characters act more like roller derby players, only they get the opportunity to compete on the world stage.
We follow Team Mekpen, a boxer hockey team that hails from the great city of Beckwood, Alabama. We get a tasted of the absurdity to come when we’re introduced to their coach, “Tim” Selleck (who everyone on the team suspects is really Tom Selleck — dashing star of Magnum PI and the patriarch of CBS’ Blue Bloods).
As the succinct sports description elaborates, there are three boxer hockers (and one goalie). There’s Rittz, a short, hyperactive guy whose mind wanders into weird territories like an eight-year-old on sugar. He’s prone to making statements that are decidedly not PC. There’s Skip, a surly, lanky fellow with spiky hair who has a penchant for violence and sunglasses. He could be the selfish rogue with the heart of gold, but oftentimes it’s hard to tell. Billy Boy is a big, strong bruiser who swings around a plank of wood. And there’s the goalie, Charlie, who must continually insist to his teammates (and others) that he isn’t gay.
Rather than be interchangable and faceless, the opponents are just as colorful as our principle characters. Mr. Hesse seems to love depicting his players in varying shapes and sizes. Team Kappa from Japan, for example, consists of two wiry dudes, one guy that’s built like a sumo, and a tiny fella that looks kinda like a frog with hair. It’s not hard to imagine that these guys have stories of their own.
The propelling drama behind Boxer Hockey, though, isn’t the other teams, nor is it about the outcome of the games realy. It’s the personality clashes. We learn about their pasts, one that proves to be pretty deep. In flashbacks, we learn that the coach, Skip, and Rittz have known each other since little league. We also learn that a previous player, Ace (who is no longer a team but whose omission remains a mystery storywise), was also an integral part of Skip and Rittz’s childhood. There are serious trust issues, especially when a new player suspects one of the veterans of throwing games. And what if he’s right? Is it worth sacrificing the team over the grievances of a newbie?
The comic is freewheeling, always taking a chance to ramp up the absurdity when it can. On their way to Australia, for example, their plane goes down after Coach Selleck lights a cigar. They spend some time in a raft, gather who they can find, and get ready for the big game as if it were all just a minor inconvenience (which it is). There’s also a very weird plot where Charlie is pregnant. We find out that Rittz is the father. Then Charlie gives birth to Bill Cosby, which, in the end, turns out to a dream sequence. At this point, though, I was pretty comfortable with this being just a regular part of the story. It is, after all the sort of bizarre nonsequitur you’d expect from a comic named after a fictional sport devoted to whacking a genetically engineered frog.
The story, though, also aims to be an emotional, character-driven drama. Throughout Boxer Hockey, there’s the undercurrent of sweetness, mainly encapsulated in the flashback kid versions of Team Mekpen. It’s almost like reading an entirely different webcomic. Sure, there are still scenes of kids whacking around fat little amphibians with sticks, which, no matter what, is totally ludicrous.
Now, though, it’s more sentimental. There are lonely scenes filled with sadness and depression. We learn, for example, that Rittz’s mother had died when he was a child, and Skip was such a true friend that he stood by his side at the funeral. We learn that Rittz was a true friend as well. Skip used to be quite a thief, but Rittz put an end to it.
Which is … something for a departure where a team brushes off a plane crash and games are played with frogs that have skin like rubber. It’s nice that the characters have more depth than they initially let on… especially Rittz, who, if he’d just always been the jumpy kid with ADHD, would’ve gotten really annoying really quickly. The tonal change, though, is rather abrupt, and the story can be a bit of choppy reading.
Still, Hesse’s manga-like art is very nice to look at. The colored pages doubly so. It’s a webcomic I want to keep following, mainly because Hesse has set up so many mysteries and dilemmas that I sorta want to see where he goes with them. In fact, I almost forget that there are bouncy frogs in this story. Come for the frogs, stay to find out what happens when and if the cheating scandal goes public. Crazy, huh? It’s almost like forgetting that Rudy was ever about Notre Dame football.
When it comes down to it, Boxer Hockey is a fun, surprisingly sweet comic about a wacky fictional sport. Or should I say, “wacky, fictional sport as of this writing.” Hey, chessboxing used to be a silly sport that only existed in comics, too.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)